Learning through Teaching: a report on work in progress

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POSTED: May 10, 2016

A version of this paper was presented at the Global Learn conference in Limerick on April 28, 2016.


This paper describes an ongoing project that aims to increase students’ control over their own learning, and to enable then to act as producers as well as consumers of information; and as genuine contributors to the spread of common and open knowledge. It outlines theoretical reasons for embarking upon the project and describes two stages of development: the production of an online course in MOOC format to test pedagogical and technical ideas, and the devising and production of a 5 credit (ECT) course for second year BA students in which the students spend their time devising and producing the online course they would otherwise have taken. Finally the paper offers some suggestions for how this approach might be refined and further developed.


From its inception Arcada has adopted an active-learning, social constructivist approach to education, which recognizes each student as a unique individual, understands that learning occurs socially, and believes that students learn best through discovery. These principles held especially true within the Institute of Culture and Communication where first year students begin working on practical projects within a few weeks of enrolling. Staff have devised methods of instruction to complement ongoing practical work, in ways that will challenge students by proceeding ahead of their development and alongside their current project; in line with the suggestions of constructivist theorists that learning occurs within a zone of proximal development, defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under … guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978)

In the last four or five years we have sought to complement this approach by altering the nature of the courses we teach, and the ways in which we teach them. We have moved all our courses from weekly or twice-weekly classes to four or five intensive one-week blocks. In this structure each block is effectively an autonomous mini-course with its own goals and learning outcomes, and each block builds upon the outcomes of the previous blocks. We have also flipped our classes by making wide use of the instruction available in Lynda.com.

Students begin courses with a pre-course assignment that usually consists of watching a playlist of videos. In classes we then work together on projects that rehearse and extend the knowledge they have gained from their self-study. We have now begun working to take this one step further by moving beyond learning by doing to learning by teaching.

Theoretical Considerations

Learning by teaching is an idea with a two thousand year history. In his letters to Lucilius, the Roman philosopher Seneca argued that “by teaching we are learning”. More recently, Lev Vygorsky has been quoted as saying that “the one who talks does the learning”, and everyday experience shows that this is often the case.

Anne Murphy Paul, writing in Time, has suggested that the “benefits of this practice were indicated by a pair of articles published in 2007 in the journals Science and Intelligence. The studies concluded that first-born children are more intelligent than their later-born brothers and sisters and suggested that their higher IQs result from the time they spend showing their younger siblings the ropes.” Teaching somebody to do something, or helping somebody understand something, requires a process of explanation and demonstration. Explaining something, whether by lecturing or demonstrating, requires you to have your ideas ordered into a coherent pattern. It requires you to analyse what you already know, arrange it into a narrative and then fill in any gaps by research. Richard Rusczyk has claimed that “when learning, we can fool ourselves into believing we have a complete grasp of an idea before we really understand it. If we can do a couple problems, we think we’re set; however, we might have only seen such easy problems that we didn’t hit the boundary of our understanding. Teaching removes this possibility of self-deceit.”

This kind of constructivist approach has worked well, but we have struggled to find ways of applying it to the more theoretical courses such as Critical Media Analysis, Theory of Games Design, and our optional book exams. We have not found it easy to create real-world outcomes for courses such as these. We therefore decided to explore the possibility of asking students to learn by creating open online courses.

The Initial MOOC

The project began in April 2014 when Erik Ostergaard from one of our partner institutions, Lillebaelt Academy in Odense, Denmark, worked with us to build an experimental MOOC. We researched existing MOOC providers such as Coursera and iVersity; and joined courses in order to understand and evaluate the structures of the courses, the balance between the different elements, the modes of delivery, and the styles of presentation. After the initial research we evolved a list of evaluation criteria. In this we were aided by Mirko Ahonen, a student who was conducting research on techniques for effective elearning for his MA thesis.

We asked students to evaluate several existing online courses in terms of the delivery of the information, the assignments used to test student knowledge, and the level and speed of the course. From this we discovered that students had definite and consistent opinions about the videos they watched, and about the tests they took. For the videos they
1. disliked lectures longer than approximately ten minutes;
2. disliked lectures shorter than about three minutes;
3. liked lectures in which the lecturer was animated and appeared emotionally engaged with the material;
4. disliked videos that created “fake movement” by zooming text or moving graphics around the screen.

The students also disliked multiple choice tests that allegedly tested whether you had watched the video but were easy to cheat; either by offering choices that were easy to guess, or by allowing the learner to take the test again and again until they had passed. Some said that they found it more interesting to skip the videos and play the tests as a guessing game than to watch the videos.

The testers also said that they disliked downloading material that
1. appeared to be random;
2. appeared to be the same as they could have found themselves by searching online;
3. seemed to have a purpose that remained unclear or unexplained.

From this we devised a format for our course in transmedia storytelling. It had 5 modules, and each module consisted of three lectures, with a downloadable pack containing additional material and an assignment. The first video in each module laid out the themes or ideas, and the other two explored aspects of these in more depth. The downloadable Explorer’s pack contained a standard set of contents that included a READ ME FIRST file that was always be in the same format, using the same design. The assignments built upon each other, and we decided to make no efforts to test whether the students had, in fact, watched each video, relying instead on the assignments to show us their level of understanding.

We then developed a technique for producing ten minute videos that would engage the students. Experiment showed that it was much easier to appear engaged with the subject standing up than sitting at a desk. We also learned that it was much better to give the mini-lectures in one continuous take than to edit them together. We spoke directly to camera in front of a green screen and then created backdrops in Adobe Photoshop which varied from the atmospheric to the informative. Using only four or five simple techniques in Adobe Premiere we faded the background slides in and out and then faded ourselves in and out over them. Sometimes we were talking to camera in fron of a background and sometimes we were providing a soundtrack to a set of illustrative slides.

What We Learned

We ran the course for the first time during the summer of 2015, when about thirty students from Arcada took it as an optional extension study. We explicitly informed the students that the course was an experiment and that they were testing them. Their final task on the course involved filling in a feedback form and ansering a questionaire. Student feedback supported our research. Students agreed that the videos were dynamic and engaging and that they contained information that was useful and easy to follow.

We analysed the feedback at some length and based on this we tweaked the format. We decided that the initial video in each module should remain at approximately ten minutes, but that the subsequent videos where we expanded the arguments through examples should be shorter. In the first iteration these videos each contained three or four related topics. We now felt that these would be better done as three or four minute single-topic videos. These would be easier to produce, extend and update, and also easier for students to engage with, since they could be viewed in any order and referred back to more easily.

Planning a Course in which Students Learn Through Teaching

Nathalie Hyde-Clarke, the head of Culture & Communication at Arcada, agreed that we could use what we had learned from the MOOC experiment to gamify our new Theory of Games Design course so that students would not write essays but scripts. Given an initial research framework, and some initial sources, both published books and articles online, the students will construct a short online course which they will then make as their final project. With this agreement I then devised a course for second year BA students that would make use of the formats we had devised. The course is in 5 modules, each of which lasts for three days. There is also an introductory meeting at which the content and the road map for the course are laid out and discussed. At the end of this the students are given a pre-course assignment that involves reading and summarizing one of the key texts, A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster.

During the course students learn by teaching. They create an online course introducing games theory to anyone interested in learning about it. They do this by researching, reading, playing, and then distilling their results into an online course using the formats described above. They write scripts not essays during the course, and they use these scripts to assemble the video components of the course. They also devise the downloadable packs and the course assignments. They have to ask themselves what tests would demonstrate the level of their learning in the kind of course they are devising, and then create them.

The first four modules in the course they are taking (and thus also the course they are devising) are:
1. What is a game?
2. Game Mechanics
3. Games and Stories
4. Design Strategies

The fifth module is a project module in which they gather all the material they have created, assemble it into an online course, and finally upload this course to eliademy.com.

Leading the Course

The course began with a mutual reading session in which we built up a group consensus about the arguments in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. We moved from this to team research, in which people found material to expand of different aspects of the key argument.
The students read, researched, sifted and filleted. They produced short scripts on the topics they had researched. They then filmed themselves presenting their results. They turned their research into a concept map using cMapTools software.

Concept maps different radically from mind maps, and are notorious difficult to construct, since each node must only appear once, and can only appear as part of a logical statement. This map therefore went through many iterations as our joint view of the relationships of all the elements involved in games design became more clearly focused. The students each took branches of this map to research further, and came together to create a syllabus from this. Finally they took each topic in the syllabus and turned it into a storyboard for a pecha kucha. We used this format because it defines a clear length, pace and structure leaving the student free to concentrate on the content.

At the time of writing the pecha kucha storyboards are about to revised and refined into full scripts that include all the relevant data, and are similarly formatted. In the final stages the students will create the background slides for each of the fifteen scripts, film and edit the mini-lectures, and compile these into a beta version of the course.

The Results to Date

To date we have achieved what we set out to do, but the process has not been without pain. The opening sessions necessarily felt messy and incoherent, even though I had taken great trouble to produce a detailed road-map of the course, and to explain how and why I felt it would be useful; and how it would achieve the learning outcomes we intended. Some students found the initial process not only messy but confusing. Some refused to believe that what I proposed was possible.

I feel that this problem will be greatly alleviated next year, when I can use this year’s course as an example. Having noted this, it is also true to say that other students threw themselves into the course and rose to the challenge with enthusiasm. All the pecha kucha storyboards have been completed successfully, and those were felt confused felt less so as the course progressed.

The Next Steps

We have several plans to expand the ideas behind this course in different directions. We will look to extend the process described above into other courses where essays might usefully be turned into scripts. We will attempt a variation of this approach in order to try to make the course more inclusive, and less confusing. To do that we will double the length of the course. In the first pass it will be taught as a traditional course. In the second pass it will be run entirely as a learning by teaching project.

We are currently reconfiguring our book exams so that students will write summaries of a given book which will be written as a kind of short Cliffs Notes. They will summarize arguments and conclusions, using a mixture or original writing and judicious quotation. The best of these will then be published online as freely available e-books. In outlining an author’s key arguments for an external readership students will move beyond the seemingly pointless essay done merely to obtain the grades to become a published contributor to an ongoing series.

We will explore ways of ensuring that lectures and presentations can be put together into different blocks, and that each presentation can be treated as a learning object in its own right. In the longer term we want to move from the production of courses to the production of topic-based learning objects that can be assembled into courses by the addition of extra material.

Behind this is a desire to help students to (literally) author their own learning.


Students have the ability to produce knowledge as well as consume it, and we should encourage them to do this wherever we can. Producing knowledge requires additional effort but offers additional rewards. It enables students to participate in building the culture in which they live.

Producing knowledge requires engaging in collaborative debate, requires challenging your own biases and opinions, and requires you to develop the ability to marshal and deploy arguments in ways that make sense to your audience. This in turn means learing empathy; the ability to see things from the perspective of another.

Students are in a powerful position to contribute open knowledge because they have no economic need to publish. Learning by doing simply replaces the traditional outcomes, such as essays which have no life and no purpose once they have been graded, with public outcomes that contribute to public culture.

In doing this we are merely taking our students seriously, by offering them something better than make-work, and requiring them to demonstrate their learning by creating the means by which others can learn. In a small but meaningful way we hope that this approach we are developing will give students a stake in their future world through recasting their studies as a means of production rather than consumption.


Chris Crawford. On Interactive Storytelling. New York: New Riders (2004)
Joseph D. Novak & Alberto J. Cañas. The Theory Underlying Concept Maps. (Web: http://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps. Retrieved: December 18, 2015)
Owen Kelly. Concept Maps are not Mind Maps (Web: http://www.owenkelly.net/691/concept-maps-are-not-mind-maps/ Retrieved: October, 2010)
Raph Koster. Theory of Fun for Game Design. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media (2013)
Anne Murphy Paul. The Real Reason You Learn A Lesson Better When You Teach It (Web: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-teaching-helps-you-learn-2013-7?op=1&IR=T Retrieved: July 29, 2015)
Pecha Kucha. (Web: http://pechakucha.org Retrieved: October 16, 2014)
Richard Rusczyk. Learning Through Teaching. (Web: http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/articles/learning-through-teaching Retrieved: January 22, 2016)
Lev Vygotsky. Mind in Society. Harvard: University Press (1978)